By GreatSchools Staff
By Maile Meloy, illustrated by Ian Schoenherr
Ages: 10 and up
Imagine a cross between Harry Potter and Nancy Drew. That blend of magic and mystery propel this fast-paced novel set in the 1950s cold-war era. Janie Scott is an American teen forced to abruptly move from Los Angeles to London with her parents. There she meets a mysterious apothecary and his son Benjamin, who intrigues her by his willingness to stand up to authority and dreams of someday becoming a spy. When Russian spies kidnap Ben’s father, he and Janie are soon plunged into a real espionage adventure. The two find an ancient book, the Pharmacopoeia, which contains magical spells and potions they must use to save Ben’s father and prevent impending nuclear disaster.
Bottom line: The suspense and fast-pacing make The Apothecary, a compelling and easy read for middle-schoolers, though some may be put off by the romantic bits between Janie and Benjamin.
Ages: 8 and up
If you love strategy, speed, and game pieces that make a satisfying clacking noise when you play them, check out Kabaleo. This quick, action-packed game requires players to bluff their way to domination by hiding the very identity of their color as they place cones on a board. It takes planning, skill, and just a touch of cunning to plot a path to victory.
Bottom line: Kids will have to put on their best poker face to win this game of strategy.
Ages: Elementary through high school
“We can go skiing as soon as your finish your homework!” That’s the sort of bribe you can use at your house — on Tuesday even if the slopes are hours away — if someone finds the Kinect Sports Ultimate (Xbox 360 Kinect) under the tree. Bored with skiing? Play some darts, a few tennis matches, or a round of golf. You can even tackle a real physical challenge like football or baseball. It’s possible that exposing your kids to these "virtual" games that are fun, challenging, and even physically exhausting, might inspire them to take up the real thing. They probably won't perfect their backhand by playing Kinect tennis or develop the stamina they’ll need for football, but they'll certainly learn to keep score and learn the terminology and rules of each game. For a reluctant middle schooler, that might be enough to get them out on the court, slope, or green to give it a try And it makes for a great family game night — even if some of the family is in another town, because you can play opponents over Xbox Live.
Bottom line: If you own an Xbox 360 and the Kinect add on, this game makes for great family fun. It might even encourage a non-athlete to take up a sport.
Ages: 8 and up
Did Colonel Mustard do the deed, or was it Mrs. Peacock? Did s/he use a knife or a candlestick and was the crime committed in the Conservatory or the Billiard Room? Clue, the classic mystery-solving game, invokes an atmosphere of elegance and evil that kids love. It's also an excellent way to develop logic and deductive reasoning skills. As players set out to solve the classic crime, they start with a set of variables and must use logic to assemble a case. By making a series of educated guesses, players gather pertinent information to eliminate suspects, possible weapons, and locations until they solve the crime. An added benefit: Kids who love Clue often develop a love of mysteries, too.
Bottom line: Kids use deductive reasoning, critical thinking, and problem solving to figure out whodunit.
Ages: 9 and up
Future Farm provides everything your future farmer needs to build her own mini garden: tweezers and pipettes, mask and gloves, sand and water purification supplies — all you need to buy are the seeds. The kit teaches the science of hydroponics – the plants are cultivated without soil — as well as lessons on growing, feeding, watering, and propagating plants.
We have a single caveat: The kit, which smartly conveys lessons about caring for the earth, is made almost entirely of plastic, which sends a confusing message about environmental stewardship.
Bottom line: Your child can grow a cornucopia of miniature crops, right in her bedroom!
Ages: Elementary through middle school
Your little one is begging for a phone. You want to know, "What’s in it for me?" This cute texting phone is small enough to fit in the pocket of those too-tight jeans you wish she wouldn't wear. The Pantech Jest 2 (to date, free with contract at Verizon.com) has a music player so you can reclaim the one she pilfered from you. It also has built-in GPS and mapping so you don’t have to worry she’ll get lost on the way to school. And if you are thinking of adding a line to your Verizon contract, this phone is affordable — with a two-year commitment. But that's not the only advantage of an in-plan phone. You can also use Verizon’s online parental and usage controls. These not only block unsavory parts of the web, but let you turn the phone off at certain times of the day. No late-night texting! No talking during school! Bad grades? No calling at all!
Bottom line: A cute, affordable, texting phone for kids too young for a data phone.
By Gennifer Choldenko, read by Becca Battoe, Jesse Bernstein, Tara Sands
Ages: 10 and up
"We always have a waiting list for this one," says Mary Schreiber, youth collection development specialist at the Cuyahoga County Library in Ohio. In No Passengers Beyond This Point , three kids are sent away to live with their uncle after the bank threatens to foreclose on their house. But somehow in transition, they end up in Falling Bird, a topsy-turvy town reminiscent of Dorothy’s Oz. Each kid is voiced by a different narrator — all established actors — who nail each of the characters and heighten the mystery of this absorbing adventure.
Bottom line: Multiple narrators breathe life into a gripping saga with a "ripped from the headlines" urgency.